"If America was a melting pot, Butte would be its boiling point," observes Morrie Morgan, the itinerant teacher, walking encyclopedia, and inveterate charmer last seen leaving a one-room schoolhouse in Marias Coulee, the stage he stole in Ivan Doig's 2006 The Whistling Season. Read more...
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"If America was a melting pot, Butte would be its boiling point," observes Morrie Morgan, the itinerant teacher, walking encyclopedia, and inveterate charmer last seen leaving a one-room schoolhouse in Marias Coulee, the stage he stole in Ivan Doig's 2006 The Whistling Season. A decade later, Morrie is back in Montana, as the beguiling narrator of Work Song.
Lured like so many others by "the richest hill on earth," Morrie steps off the train in Butte, copper-mining capital of the world, in its jittery heyday of 1919. But while riches elude Morrie, once again a colorful cast of local characters-and their dramas-seek him out: a look-alike, sound-alike pair of retired Welsh miners; a streak-of-lightning waif so skinny that he is dubbed Russian Famine; a pair of mining company goons; a comely landlady propitiously named Grace; and an eccentric boss at the public library, his whispered nickname a source of inexplicable terror. When Morrie crosses paths with a lively former student, now engaged to a fiery young union leader, he is caught up in the mounting clash between the iron-fisted mining company, radical "outside agitators," and the beleaguered miners. And as tensions above ground and below reach the explosion point, Morrie finds a unique way to give a voice to those who truly need one.
"The most tumultous, quirky, and fascinating city in the American West of the last century has finally found a storyteller equal to its stories. ... Ivan Doig brings to life the core of humanity, and a hell of cast, amidst the shadows and sorrows of Butte, Montana -- a city that could say it never slept well before New York made a similar claim."-Tim Egan, author of "The Last Hard Time and The Big Burn"
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2010-05-10
- Reviewer: Staff
Doig affectionately revisits Morris "Morrie" Morgan from the much-heralded The Whistling Season. Now, 10 years later, in 1919, Morrie lands in Butte, Mont., beholding the area's natural beauty that "made a person look twice." Scoring a job is a top priority, as is getting more face time with Grace Faraday, the alluring widow who runs the boardinghouse where he stays. Things, naturally, are complicated, as the fiendishly bookish Morrie is on the run from Chicago gangsters who feel they've been duped after he scored a windfall from a fixed sports wager. The local "shysters" at the duplicitous Anaconda Copper Mining Company, meanwhile, find Morrie's sudden interest in Butte highly suspicious as they try to bully Grace into selling her property. Morrie lands what might be an ideal job working at the public library with ex–cattle rancher Samuel Sandison, though our sturdy narrator must choose sides when the mining company ups the ante. Drama ebbs and flows as Morrie yields to the plight of union leader Jared Evans, and Morrie and Samuel come to terms with sins from their pasts. Charismatic dialogue and charming, homespun characterization make Doig's latest another surefire winner. (July)
Settle in for a charming tale from the Old West
Ivan Doig, born and bred in Montana, has written many popular works of fiction about the American West. In Work Song, he returns to his best-selling 2008 novel The Whistling Season [BookPage review] and its central character, Morrie Morgan. The place: Butte, Montana of 1919, a bustling post-World War I copper mining capital, where “The Richest Hill on Earth” has enticed Morrie to try his luck at siphoning off a few of the riches said to be waiting in its famed copper veins under the earth.
Work Song is entertaining for its rich historical take on the town of Butte, then in its mining heyday, and for its evocative descriptions of the Anaconda Company’s copper mines. Their warren of shafts and tunnels spews forth thousands of miners, who create a human army as they leave at the end of the day’s shift. It’s a dramatic backdrop to the burgeoning labor disputes brewing between the beleaguered miners and Anaconda’s tycoons, who are sitting pretty in the town’s grand Hennessy Building.
Within this sprawling canvas, the engaging yet elusive Morrie seems a bit of a contradiction, with his charming and mild-seeming exterior and a mind crammed full of literary and historical tidbits of knowledge, while another side of his character resides in his pockets—a handy pair of brass knuckles. Morrie’s boarding house companions, attractive landlady Grace and two retired miners, Griff and Hoop, lead Morrie ever deeper into the explosive labor conflict, as it bubbles under the surface waiting to erupt. Question: Will the villains be conquered by—a song?
Morrie craftily matches wits with two hilarious company goons, Eel Eyes and Typhoon Tolliver. There’s also a fleet-footed urchin straight out of Dickens, so skinny he’s given the name Russian Famine. And, looming large, the mysterious librarian Sam Sandison, who hires Morrie to work amidst his stunning gold and leather book collection. Add a stoic and wily labor organizer and his sparkly fiancé, an old friend to Morrie, and the book comes to life in Doig’s engaging and magical prose.
Rather than blowing you off the page, Doig’s writing has a settling effect; as in, you settle comfortably into your chair, confident you’ll be enjoying every bit of his breathtaking storytelling prowess.